Although I hadn’t previously given the myriad implications of cosmetic surgery much thought, our readings from Davis, Stevens, and Grealy this week each brought to my attention some of the tensions that exist in how we perceive these elective surgeries and the those who choose to go under the knife. While each article came from a different perspective (theoretical versus personal, plastic surgery as a practice of identity formation/effacement versus a solution to unavoidable life changes versus a process of regaining some sense of normalcy), they all brought one overarching issue to the forefront for me – namely, who decides which surgeries are acceptable and which are not? How do we come to these conclusions that plastic surgery is acceptable in situation A but deplorable in situation B? Where do we draw the line?
In Kathy Davis’s article, Surgical Passing, I appreciated her clarification on the idea that plastic surgery is not merely an attempt to conform to broader societal beauty norms, but rather is a way for an individual to alleviate their suffering over the offending aspect of their appearance. Her description of her feminist colleagues’ reaction to different types of surgeries seems to mirror many others’ reactions (including, in many cases, my own). There are some situations in which plastic surgery is OK, but overall we are critical of surgical procedures that seem to be done for purely aesthetic reasons. But even this distinction is not so easy. Davis herself offers up a question concerning this distinction – “Aren’t all recipients of cosmetic surgery, regardless of gender, ethnicity or nationality, sexual orientation or age, engaged in negotiating their identity in contexts where differences in embodiment can evoke unbearable suffering?” (p. 75) So how do we decide which situations are acceptable? When does an individual’s suffering become “unbearable”?
In recent years, several television shows have featured individuals undergoing numerous surgical procedures in dramatic makeover transformations. Interestingly, I think the critical and popular acceptance (or rejection) of these shows follows similar lines to many feminist distinctions of what kinds of plastic surgery are OK. The common judgment seems to be that surgeries done in order to correct some “deformity” or other characteristic that marks someone as different and non-normative provide significant life improvements, whereas surgeries done for aesthetic reasons (to conform to beauty standards) are superficial and can be roundly criticized.
The show Extreme Makeover (airing for 4 seasons from 2002-2007) focused on a different individual each episode with some sort of life-history sob story. They really detailed the ways their appearance had negatively affected their lives (causing them suffering), and they were given dramatic makeovers (not limited to plastic surgery, but often strongly depending on it) that were supposed to improve their personal standard of living. While the show did receive some criticism over the standards of beauty used to shape their makeovers, the show was largely framed as a service to really help these individuals.
On the other end, the show Bridalplasty aired on E! last year. For those who are not familiar with this show, I’ll let this promotional trailer speak for itself:
None of the women on this show had obvious physical characteristics that would mark them as targets for negative attention or ridicule. I watched the first episode out of curiosity, and I remember thinking “they all look pretty cute!” The show received massively negative critical attention, and the reactions I saw online (on discussion boards and online communities) were overwhelmingly vitriolic. People not only disliked this show, but they were deeply offended by the premise and the messages the show communicated about beauty, love, and women’s self-worth.
Without rambling on much longer, these examples bring me back to my question – how do we decide how much suffering is enough to warrant surgical intervention? We clearly make judgments about these choices, but who is to say that the girl who looks in the mirror and thinks her nose is too big doesn’t (or does) suffer enough to undergo surgery? Just as we want to be critical of the forces that motivate women to undergo dangerous procedures to change their appearance, I think we also need to be critical of the impulse to criticize and the foundations of those criticisms.